Alum Interview: International Aid Worker Matthew Kennedy
With a double major in Economics and International Studies, and minors in Chinese, Asian Studies and Spanish, Matthew Kennedy (BA-11), was well prepared for an international career. Today, he’s thrilled to have landed in the Peace Corps, serving as a health volunteer in the small village of Mahasoabe, Madagascar where he trains local community health workers on issues such as sanitation, nutrition, malarial care, and HIV prevention.
Matthew recently visited campus and spoke about how his studies at UNC and abroad put him on target to achieve his professional goals. His presentation was coordinated by the Department of Modern Languages and sponsored by the Center for International Education, Career Services and the Alumni Association. In conjunction with his visit, Matthew took the time to reflect on his career and on how UNC helped him prepare for it.
What drew you to pursue your studies at UNC?
As a graduate of Northridge High School in Greeley, I initially thought I’d have to move far away from home in order to truly experience the world. But it turned out attending college at UNC, so close to where I grew up, gave me the opportunity to expand my horizons in all kinds of ways. UNC’s Center for International Education offers a variety of study abroad opportunities including an exchange program that allows students to study at other schools in the United States and abroad for the same tuition one would pay at UNC. Through the CIE, I was able to study in Spain, Taiwan, and China. UNC turned out to be a great place for me. I had great teachers, made many new international friends, and—thanks to the scholarships I received—graduated with very little debt.
Were there organizations and instructors at UNC who were particularly influential in setting you on this professional path?
A variety of great language courses and study abroad experiences I had early on motivated me to get involved with UNC’s International Ambassadors Club, an organization geared toward helping international students feel more at home in their new surroundings. My first mentoring assignment was with a Taiwanese student and as the semester went on, I met other Taiwanese students and eventually got involved with various cultural groups at UNC including the Taiwanese Student Association and the Chinese Language and Culture Club. As I got more and more deeply involved, I decided to take a Chinese class so I could communicate better with my new friends. All of this ultimately put me on path toward pursuing a Chinese minor with an eye toward living and working in Asia—a decision that’s changed my life.
I also had an amazing instructor in Dr. Michelle Low. Not only was she a great Chinese professor, she worked tirelessly with me as an advisor to ensure that I could complete a double-major in Economics, and International Studies within a five year period all while studying abroad on multiple occasions. She truly embodies UNC’s commitment to student success.
After graduation, how did you use the language (and other) skills you acquired at UNC to succeed as a health volunteer with the Peace Corps?
I learned from my study abroad experiences at UNC that the key to learning a new language is to just jump in and keep trying to speak it. At first you can only communicate simple thoughts at a very basic level which can be frustrating and a little scary, but eventually persistence always pays off.
When I got dropped off at my site in Madagascar after only two months of training and language classes, I was alone. No other volunteers were assigned to this site. It was hard just buying the essential items I needed for everyday life. You have to really keep at it and not give up. At first, I worked with local health care professionals giving simple presentations on good nutrition and hygiene. I learned pictures are worth a 1,000 words and used lots of posters and props in my presentations. After about six months I began to feel more comfortable with my language skills and I’m at a point now where I am beginning to work with some local leaders on a project to enhance sanitation by creating a system of latrines.
What were some of the biggest challenges and rewards of your work with the Peace Corps?
The true foundation of Malagasy culture as I’ve experienced it is personal relationships. Professionally, this means balancing your mission to educate others on public health issues and influence their actions with an obligation to be respectful of their perspective and individual dignity. Even the most practical-seeming projects have that very real emotional component you have to navigate. The connections you naturally make as part of your work are extremely meaningful. When a particular family asks me to spend the holidays with them because “I helped them a lot,” I know that they really mean it.
While I may not change the world during my two years of service, I know that I did change the lives of a few individuals. Personally, one of the biggest rewards I have gotten from Peace Corps has been discovering what my strengths and weaknesses are. I have defined my life’s path and discovered what my main priorities are. I feel more confident than ever in my ability to help people achieve their goals, even when they’re not quite sure how to get there.
Are you interested in language, culture and international travel? Visit UNC’s Center for International Education. There are literally hundreds of opportunities to get involved and to TRAVEL! Through student exchanges, visiting scholars, cross-cultural events, intensive English programs, and more, the center works to enrich the education of all UNC students by providing an enhanced awareness of our interconnected world. Be sure to visit the Department of Modern Languages homepage for details on all of UNC’s linguistic course offerings.
Are you close to an accomplished, recent alum of UNC like Matthew who deserves some special recognition? The Young Alumni Council is currently accepting nominations for its brand new awards program - 10 Under 10! Follow the link to submit the name of your favorite go-getter, mobilizer, or game-changer.
Do you know a classmate, professor, or other UNC supporter whose work is changing lives? The Alumni Association is also seeking nominations for its longest running, most prestigious distinction, the Honored Alumni Awards. For specifics on eligibility and the nomination process, please visit the Honored Alumni homepage here.